Bombshell: film on sexual harassment bombs out for its superficiality

Jay Roach, “Bombshell” (2019)

The plot is very basic enough: a female television personality employee at Fox News is sacked by the big boss for questionable reasons – all arising from a toxic and dysfunctional work culture in which women are employed and promoted on the basis of their appearance and willingness to tolerate sexual innuendo and sometimes downright bullying, harassment and even seduction and rape – and decides to pursue a lawsuit against the boss, rather than her former employer, for sexual harassment. On this structure, “Bombshell” attempts to build a narrative of how an individual fights to overcome sexual discrimination in an organisation and the obstacles she must overcome, not least obstacles such as fear among other female employees of the consequences of speaking out. In this, the film does not succeed well, due to a plot structure of three sub-plots, each revolving around a different woman, running in parallel with not much happening in any of them.

Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is demoted from a prime morning TV show to hosting an afternoon show in a lesser time slot and is eventually fired by Roger Ailes (John Lithgow). She launches her lawsuit against Ailes as advised by her lawyers but needs the support of other women who have been employed at, or are currently working for, Fox News under Ailes. Initially her lawyers question various female employees there and do surveys but discover that the vast majority of women refuse to speak out against Ailes – in part because they fear for their careers and know other TV news networks will not employ them if their CVs show they have worked for Fox News, on the basis of its politics and the general perception that it is a lightweight network. One woman who is found to dither is TV news anchor Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) who has her own history of sexual harassment from Ailes. Kelly spends a fair amount of time making up her mind as to whether her career is more important or speaking out in solidarity with Carlson and other Fox News employees who have also been harassed by Ailes. One of these other women is Kaylah Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a new-ish recruit ambitious to climb high in the organisation but discovering to her horror and anguish that she will have to succumb also to Ailes’ advances towards her if she is to achieve her career goals.

Theron and Robbie do excellent work as their respective characters though their paths cross just twice in the film: once, when they are in a lift together with Kidman’s Carlson, none of the characters speaking to one another; and second when Kelly is sounding out Pospisil as to whether she agrees with Carlson’s lawsuit and would be willing to speak to Carlson’s lawyers. This is a powerful moment in the film: Pospisil responds that if Kelly had spoken out earlier against Ailes, younger women like herself would have been spared Ailes’ harassment. Kelly snarls that her job isn’t to defend Pospisil or any other woman at Fox News. Only when Kelly discovers that a sufficient number of women are prepared to speak out against Ailes does she decide to join them. Carlson tends to be a secondary character and most of what she does to incriminate Ailes is mentioned in passing or off-camera: in other words, Kidman actually does not do a great deal in the film.

The film seems to evade a lot of what Carlson, Kelly and Pospisil do in the way of piling up enough evidence to force Rupert Murdoch and his sons James and Lachlan to dump Ailes. There is also much that “Bombshell” evades about Fox News: how the organisation’s own politics and culture of discrimination against other vulnerable minority groups such as black and other non-white people, and people who are not heterosexual, encourage a toxic environment where women are judged on their appearance; and how companies owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation generally end up espousing similar ideologies and values, and are dominated by work cultures where self-censorship seems to be rife. Megyn Kelly is not an admirable figure, coming over as cowardly and callous, concerned only for herself, but that should not be surprising given the organisation she works for and the shallow and selfish Ayn-Rand materialist values it espouses. The fictional character of Kaylah Pospisil elicits sympathy from viewers – but viewers may wonder why a fictional character had to be introduced into the film in the first place. Were there not any real-life Fox News employees who had a skerrick of decency in them who could have featured in a similar role?

Bizarre narrative techniques such as having Kelly speaking directly to the audience about Fox News and the use of three parallel sub-plots, necessitating lots of choppy editing, leave the film in a fragmented state and its main characters treated in a superficial way. One gets the feeling that the film was made basically to trash Fox News for its politics and its culture – because the network supported Donald Trump for the US Presidency in 2016, when the film was set – but after that, the film takes many liberties with what actually happened at the organisation that led to Carlson’s lawsuit and Kelly’s decision to support Carlson.

Bombshell? The film fizzles more than it delivers explosions. A superficial treatment of the issues at stake, with more effort put into the lead actresses’ make-up, hairstyles and clothing than in the actual plot and investigating the characters and their motivations in depth, makes this a film a bomb.